by Laura Keane, Associate in the Insurance and Risk department in Mason Hayes & Curran
Mason Hayes & Curran acted for the defendant, on the instructions of their insurer, in the case of Una Ruffley v the Board of Management of St Anne’s School. This case afforded the Supreme Court an opportunity to engage in a comprehensive analysis of the law of bullying in the workplace in Ireland. This seminal decision clarifies the standard to be met in order to succeed in a workplace bullying claim.
The road to the Supreme Court
In 2014, the High Court found that Ms Ruffley, who was a special needs assistant in the defendant school, had been subjected to repeated inappropriate behaviour arising from an unfair and flawed disciplinary process carried out by the school between 2009 and 2010. She was awarded €255,276 by Mr Justice O’Neill.
The school’s appeal of the High Court decision was upheld by a 2-1 majority in the Court of Appeal. On 26 May 2017, the Court of Appeal’s decision was unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court on the basis that the disciplinary process, though inherently flawed, did not to “fit squarely into the core understanding of bullying at work”.
The new standard
Mr Justice O’Donnell, who wrote the main judgment with which all six judges agreed, set the standard to be met to succeed in establishing a claim for bullying.
- The test set out in Quigley v Complex Tooling & Moulding Ltd  1 IR 349 was restated. In order to constitute bullying, behaviour must be “repeated, inappropriate and have the effect of undermining the dignity of the employee at work”.
- However, in order to have the effect of undermining dignity at work, behaviour must be capable of being described as “outrageous, unacceptable and exceeding all bounds tolerated by decent society”.
- Behaviour may be considered “strange”, “odd” and “difficult to understand” but not malicious. However, “it is difficult to see that intent on the part of the bully is an essential feature” of bullying.
- In coming to the conclusion that the school’s conduct did not amount to bullying, Mr Justice O’Donnell noted the absence of “ridicule, personal antagonism, exclusion from a group, shouting in public, making of disparaging remarks in public or private about work, appearance, gender or sexuality, status or racial origin, intimidation, the circulation of damaging gossip, the use of aggressive or obscene language or repeated requests to do tasks which were either menial or impossible to perform in the time required”.
The backdrop to the decision
In his judgment, Mr Justice O’Donnell noted the UK case of Ferguson v British Gas Trading Ltd  EWCA Civ. 46 where it is stated that “in life one has to put up with a certain amount of annoyance: things have got to be fairly severe before the law, civil or criminal, will intervene”. He also quotes the UK Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which states that conduct “must be grave” to amount to bullying.
He also referenced U.S. case law in the area where only in cases of “extreme misconduct recovery is allowed”.
The overriding “takeaway” from this decision is that there is now more clarity surrounding the definition of repeated and inappropriate behaviour. It is interesting that the decision was coloured by the approach taken in other jurisdictions where only extreme behaviour will reach the standard required to mount a successful claim. It is therefore unsurprising that in order to undermine a person’s dignity at work, conduct must be “outrageous, unacceptable and exceeding all bounds tolerated by decent society”. It will be interesting to see how this decision impacts on self-insured corporations and on the number of cases of this type being pursued.
About the author
Laura is an Associate in the Insurance and Risk department in Mason Hayes & Curran. She advises both Irish and international insurance companies in relation to all aspects of insurance litigation. Laura has acted for a number of major international retailers, hospitals, healthcare facilities, educational institutions and multi-national self-insured corporations in a wide range of disputes. She specialises in the defence of personal injury, employers liability, defamation, property damage and public liability litigation.